Throughout the day, tourists flooded the streets of Cordoba, making the most of a summer still lingering in the warm Andalusian south.
But at around 7pm local time, the city scene began to change. A red sea of Spain fans emerged, eager to finally see their World Cup winners back on home turf after a dramatic month off the pitch.
The area around the Estadio Nuevo Arcangel was packed, two and a half hours before kick-off in Tuesday’s UEFA Women’s Nations League match against Switzerland.
There was an eagerness in the air, and the bar had been set. On Friday, Sweden welcomed Spain as heroes with banners of support when they came out to warm up in Gothenburg.
When the Spain team bus arrived near the ground, fans raced to be best placed to see the players. There was applause, singing and banners. One, in lilac letters, read: “Football is a reflection of society.”
When the players came out onto the pitch to warm up, the crowd cheered them noisily. They were keen to remind them of one thing that had perhaps at times been forgotten during all the recent turmoil: that they are world champions.
The crowd kept singing it, and Alexia Putellas and Irene Paredes, captains of the team, raised the World Cup trophy together as they paraded it around the ground. Paredes closed her eyes and smiled, feeling the moment — and the relief.
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It was time for the team photos. The Spain players took off their white sweatshirts and revealed the same wristbands they wore against Sweden bearing the message: “Se Acabo (It’s Over).”
As also happened in Sweden, the Switzerland and Spain players posed together with a banner that read: “Our fight is the global fight.” Supporters met the gesture with a standing ovation.
Then came the goals. Lucia Garcia — one of the players who last September refused to play for the national team until standards were improved and who did not go to the World Cup for the same reasons — opened the scoring for Spain, who would go on to win 5-0. Just as in the last 16 of the World Cup, Switzerland did little to trouble goalkeeper Cata Coll.
Before returning after half-time, the home players gathered in the tunnel. The Swiss had already come out.
They waited while the public address system announced the attendance. A new record was expected, and so it was confirmed: there were 14,194 present. The previous high bar was set last year against the United States, with 11,209 watching in Pamplona.
The mood throughout was festive, helped along by Spain’s excellent performance. But this has not been an easy time for the players, far from it.
When new manager Montse Tome named her first squad last Monday, it left a majority of the players anxious and upset. Just days previously, they had re-committed to their position: that they would not play again for Spain until significant changes were made both in the national team set-up and at the Spanish Football Association (RFEF).
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They were angered, too, by the fact Tome claimed publicly to have spoken with the players about her decision to call them up regardless. This was not true: none of them knew anything about it, least of all Patri Guijarro and Mapi Leon, who like Garcia had been absent from the team since last year.
What followed was two days of uncertainty before a late night of intense, long meetings saw key promises made. The players agreed to remain with the national team and some important moves followed. Andreu Camps was removed from his position as RFEF general secretary, Miguel Garcia Caba is no longer its integrity director.
One of the most tense meetings was with Tome. The players initially wanted her out of the team. Now, after key victories against Sweden and Switzerland that bring Spain closer to qualifying for the Olympic Games, she finds herself in a stronger position.
And as the days have gone by, a sense of calm has come over a squad whose spirits are now rising after a testing week that has combined elite professional sport with determined social activism. They’ve performed both roles brilliantly, on very little sleep.
“It’s all good,” Bonmati responded when asked how players saw Tome’s role now. “At the beginning it was strange because of the way the call-up happened, but things happen and that’s it. We have stayed and when you stay you have to assume the responsibility you have.
“We hope that the situation we have experienced this week never has to happen again because it is exhausting. We have had the feeling that we always have to focus on things outside and not on football.
“When we came to the training camp we saw everything very badly, we weren’t ready to train, we weren’t ready to play and, despite that, we won both games and in such a way.
“We have a lot of talent both on and off the pitch.”
It remains to be seen what further immediate progress will follow next from the concessions and promises of progress Spain’s players earned last week. The RFEF has made a commitment to keep making changes and some more federation figures are expected to fall.
Tome’s role, meanwhile, could be extended until the first quarter of 2024, when there will be elections to choose a permanent successor to Luis Rubiales as RFEF president. She will also try to build bridges with Leon and Guijarro to plan for their return.
A first chance for further discussion comes quickly. Wednesday will see the first meeting of a new joint commission between government officials, the RFEF and players. The commission was set up after last week’s key talks with the president of Spain’s Consejo Superior de Deportes (High Sports Council), Victor Francos.
It will be a chance for the players to fully explain their feelings, to digest everything that has happened. Then, they will return to their clubs, with the feeling of having lived an exhausting time, but in the knowledge they have done exceptional work done, both on the football pitch and beyond.
They have laid the foundations for the future — and Cordoba was celebrating that, too.
(Top photo: Fran Santiago/Getty Images)